Will kosher food be taboo? University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus Student Union expands support for BDS

University of Toronto Scarborough Campus Student Centre

The University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU) has voted to expand its support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel to curtail activities and services which “normalize Israeli apartheid,” including providers of kosher food.

The BDS motion, moved by union president Sarah Abdillahi and its vice president of equity, Isaiah Murray, passed at the SCSU’s annual general meeting on Nov. 24. It resulted from last year’s annual meeting, which mandated the union develop a policy that “solidifies” its commitment to the international BDS movement.

The CJN’s calls and messages to the union to ascertain the margin by which the motion was approved were not returned.

A separate resolution, titled “Re-affirmation of Rights of Jewish Students at UTSC,” referring to the university’s Scarborough campus, was heavily amended by the union’s policy and bylaw committee before its adoption at the annual meeting.

Observers say the latest BDS motion goes beyond the union’s previous support for the movement, especially with the inclusion of kosher food. The SCSU first endorsed BDS in 2013.

In the updated and expanded resolution, contained in the 86-page meeting agenda, the union pledges to:

  • Reaffirm its commitment to the BDS movement by committing to actively support initiatives that raise awareness about Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine and war crimes against Palestinian peoples;
  • Refrain from engaging with organizations, services, or participating in events that further normalize Israeli apartheid in ways including, but not limited to, inviting speakers representing the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) or support the military occupation of Palestine, the displacement, incarceration and/or killings of Palestinian people. (However), individuals with a history of service in the IDF but no current ties or support of the institution should not be held accountable for their required duty to serve;
  • Efforts should be made to source kosher food from organizations that do not normalize Israeli apartheid. However, recognizing the limited availability of this necessity, then exceptions can be made if no alternatives are available;
  • Prioritize alternative contracts to companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian human rights; such as, but not limited to, those that provide technical and/or logistical support to occupation;
  • Wherever possible, terminate contracts with companies that are found to profit from the occupation of Palestine;
  • Ensure that the BDS list is accessible to members by housing a link on SCSU’s website;
  • Boycott Israeli and settlement goods from being sold by Student Union entities;
  • Lobby the University of Toronto to divest from investments and contracts that directly and indirectly fund the occupation of Palestine;
  • Lobby the University of Toronto to eliminate the selling of BDS affiliated goods and terminate contracts with companies that are found to profit from the occupation of Palestine.

At the same time, the union said it opposes “any form(s) of antisemitic remarks or rhetoric that seek to abuse the BDS movement as a method of discrimination against Jewish students; the notion that Jewish students are inherently in violation of the BDS policy and in support of the state of Israel’s oppression of Palestine; and the notion that the BDS movement is inherently antisemitic due to its criticism of the state of Israel.”

The motion’s preamble said the BDS campaign was inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement.

Reaction to the measure’s approval was swift. Gabriela Rosenblum, a Hasbara Fellow at the UofT Scarborough campus, said it “requires that Jews at UTSC prove that they are ‘good Jews’ in the eyes of the student government, distinct from the many ‘bad Jews’ who support Israel. This motion even defines antisemitism for the Jewish students on campus.”

It presents hurdles no other group faces, Rosenblum said.

“Even for something as simple as ordering jelly donuts for Hanukkah, Jewish students at SCSU will now be forced to prove that kosher caterers do not support their Jewish homeland, which is basically impossible.”

Daniel Koren, executive director of Hasbara Canada, said he believes that the motion’s rejection of groups which “normalize Israeli apartheid” could extend to any pro-Israel student group and threaten their funding.

Koren called the motion’s passage “a direct assault on Jewish students at UTSC (which) aims to hinder their ability to live a Jewish life.

“Whether the SCSU likes it or not, Israel is an essential part of Jewish identity,” Koren said in a statement. “They do not have the right to tell Jewish students how to practice Judaism on campus.”

Renan Levine, who teaches political science at UofT, told The CJN he feels that as a professor who self-identifies as a Zionist, he won’t be able to organize events about Israeli politics with the SCSU or other campus groups that depend on the SCSU for funding.

Levine agreed that both motions put the funding of pro-Israel campus groups at risk. For example, cutting the language on permitting exceptions for particular political beliefs of student groups or those of co-sponsors of events “clearly allows for the SCSU to deny funding to Jewish students who wish to organize events together with Hasbara, Hillel or even Peace Now,” he told The CJN.

Levine wrote on Facebook that the result of the BDS resolution “is very clear: while some Jewish students with the correct political views are welcome by their peers at UTSC, Jewish organizations and Jewish owned and operated businesses that support Israel will find a themselves on a public blacklist, and students who share those views will get a clear message from the student government: your views are not welcome here.”

Hillel UofT said it was “deeply disappointed” by the union’s position and called on the executive “to take immediate steps to reverse this shameful resolution.”

Hillel commended the efforts of Jewish students to pass the separate resolution on the rights of Jewish students, even though it had been heavily amended.

The motion calls on the union to “protect the right of Jewish students to enjoy their Charter of Rights freedom of expression on campus, including the articulation of political views, the practice of religious beliefs, and the display of Jewish symbols.”

It also calls for the funding of “all recognized student groups (which) apply for, and qualify for, union funding for student programming events through normal processes.” However, struck from the rest of that sentence was the following: … “without exceptions for particular political beliefs held by the student groups, the views expressed by participants or organizers of such events, or the political views of co-sponsors of the events.”

The resolution “opposes and condemns hostile behaviour directed against Jews because they are Jews, or Israeli students because they are Israeli citizens, by executives and staff of the SCSU.”

But while the students’ union will continue to support campus events about the Holocaust, Jewish religious beliefs, or Jewish history, it draws the line at events “organized or sponsored, in full or in part, by campus and community groups that support Israel or Zionism.”

The resolution on students’ rights was moved by Jewish UofT student Maxwell Fine, who told The CJN it was amended without his input or knowledge behind closed doors, prior to the annual meeting, which he was unable to attend.

Fine has started a petition calling on the SCSU to stop discriminating against Jews by presenting the original, unredacted resolution on the rights of Jewish students at UTSC.

Since the amendments went against his wishes, they “would surely be ruled as being out of order if they took place during the meeting,” Fine wrote on the petition.

The SCSU motions are “disturbing but not surprising, as the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus has been known as a hotbed of antisemitism for many years,” B’nai Brith Canada said in a statement to The CJN.

The union’s actions violate UofT’s anti-discrimination policies, and the administration “is therefore obligated to withhold all fees remitted to the SCSU,” B’nai Brith said.

Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre also condemned the student union’s actions, calling them “a bald-faced case of on-campus antisemitism” which “ups the ante in an already toxic environment for Jews, further infringing on their ability to lead a normal life on campus.”

The organization noted that the BDS motion comes almost one year after UofT announced the establishment of its Antisemitism Working Group, “which has remained strangely silent amid rampant and growing antisemitism on the university’s campuses.”